Governance

For decades, policymakers have piled regulations onto public schools. This top-down, input-driven approach made sense back in an era when too many students weren’t receiving even a rudimentary education and nobody was as fussy about academic results. As Netflix’s Reed Hastings once said, the only thing worse than a regulated monopoly is an unregulated monopoly.

But times have changed. We now realize that students need strong minds, not just strong backs, to compete for jobs in a competitive and knowledge-based economy. Rigorous academic expectations are the coin of the realm in contemporary education policy, but there is also near-universal consensus that youngsters deserve schooling experiences tailored to their individual needs, gifts, and interests. And parental choice is no longer a distant dream of Milton Friedman’s; it’s a reality in most urban communities in America.

These powerful forces demand a radically different approach to public education—and especially to the old regulatory regime that ruled it. States must demand that schools raise their academic performance to prepare all students for success in college or a career. In return, educators should have the autonomy to design instruction aimed at achieving these ambitious goals and to customize their approaches to accord with their pupils’...

Years into America’s quest to fix its failing schools, everyone agrees that it is extraordinarily hard work to turn them around. But that hasn’t stopped us from trying.

Indeed, the federal government has spent over $5.7 billion on school improvement grants (SIG) to date and has very little to show for it. Data from 2013 indicated that roughly two-thirds of schools that received SIG funds saw incremental gains in student proficiency—in line with the performance trend for all U.S. schools, including those that didn’t get SIG dollars. Even more disappointingly, one-third of SIG schools did worse after receiving the funding. (A small percentage stayed the same.)

A May 2015 study helped to explain these sobering results. It found that most states lack the expertise to turn around persistently failing schools. In fact, 80 percent of state officials reported “significant gaps” in this realm.

Even when we stumble upon promising strategies, the old familiar barriers make implementation difficult. In 2012, for example, the Center on Education Policy found that a majority of state officials believed that replacing the principal or staff of low-performing schools was a key element in improving student achievement there. Yet many also reported that...

Over the past year, Ohio legislators have been focusing on the state’s need to deregulate its education system. The Ohio Senate recently passed Senate Bill 3 (SB 3), legislation focused on deregulation and flexibility for high-performing districts. Governor Kasich has also brought up the subject. But what exactly does deregulation mean? How can the state and local districts deregulate without sacrificing accountability, and which areas are ready to be cut free from red tape?

To answer these questions, Fordham commissioned its newest publication, Getting Out of the Way: Education Flexibility to Boost Innovation and Improvement in Ohio. This report highlights the key issues policymakers need to consider when loosening the regulatory grip on public schools, and also offers several recommendations for local and state leaders.

One of the report’s authors, Education First’s Paolo DeMaria, presented the findings and recommendations at a breakfast event on June 11. DeMaria began his presentation by explaining why deregulation matters and why this is an ideal moment to pursue deregulation. (For news coverage of the event, see here and here.) After summarizing how some Ohio districts already utilize deregulation to innovate, DeMaria outlined his recommendations. (For more on the...

In Redefining the School District in America, Nelson Smith reexamines existing recovery school districts (RSDs)—entities in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan charged with running and turning around their states’ worst schools—and assembles the most comprehensive catalog of similar initiatives underway and under consideration elsewhere.

Among more than twenty recommendations gleaned from both failed and successful attempts to create and implement RSDs, Smith recommends that those who go down the turnaround path should:

  • Call your lawyer. A close reading of the state constitution is essential. Some states are so wedded to traditional forms of “local control” that setting up a state district will require fancy legal footwork, if not a constitutional amendment.
  • Decide the endgame—for both schools and the turnaround district. Apart from setting goals for school performance, other decisions must be addressed—and the earlier, the better.
  • Expect course corrections. Running a statewide district is a huge, complex undertaking full of political, financial, and logistical challenges—not to mention the myriad crises and complications that always arise in institutions serving real children. Sometimes even turnaround efforts need to turn around.
  • Give the locals a chance. After taking over failing schools, reformers sent by the state may want to clean house and start fresh with
  • ...

For decades, Ohio policymakers have piled regulations onto public schools. Up to a point, this top-down, input-driven approach made sense, back in an era when too many students weren’t receiving even a rudimentary education, and when we weren’t nearly as fussy about academic results.

But times have changed. We now realize that students need strong minds—not just strong backs—to compete for jobs in a competitive and knowledge-based economy. Rigorous academic expectations are the “coin of the realm” in contemporary education policy—but there is also now near-universal consensus that youngsters deserve schooling experiences tailored to their individual needs, gifts, and interests.

These powerful forces demand a radically different approach to public education—and especially to the old regulatory regime that ruled it. The state must demand that schools raise their academic performance to ready all Ohio students for success in college or career. (Currently, 40 percent of Ohio’s college-going freshmen require some form of remediation.) In return, educators should have the autonomy to design instruction aimed at achieving these ambitious goals and to customize their approaches to accord with their pupils’ needs, capabilities, and circumstances. This means that the compliance-based approach to public education must give way to more flexible arrangements.

Ohio...

In Redefining the School District in America, Nelson Smith reexamines existing recovery school districts (RSDs)—entities in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan charged with running and turning around their state’s worst schools—and assembles the most comprehensive catalog of similar initiatives underway and under consideration elsewhere.

Among more than twenty recommendations gleaned from both failed and successful attempts to create and implement RSDs, Smith recommends that those who go down the turnaround path should:

  • Call your lawyer. A close reading of the state constitution is essential. Some states are so wedded to traditional forms of “local control” that setting up a state district will require fancy legal footwork, if not a constitutional amendment.
  • Decide the endgame—for both schools and the turnaround district. Apart from setting goals for school performance, other decisions must be addressed—and the earlier the better.
  • Expect course corrections. Running a statewide district is a huge, complex undertaking full of political, financial, and logistical challenges—not to mention the myriad crises and complications that always arise in institutions serving real children. Sometimes even turnaround efforts need to turn around.
  • Give the locals a chance. After taking over failing schools, reformers sent by the state may want to clean house and start fresh with
  • ...

The Ohio Senate recently passed Senate Bill 3 (SB 3), legislation focused on “deregulation,” and sent it on to the House. The bill would allow high-performing districts to be exempt from certain state regulations. Judging from the testimony presented, the most controversial provisions dealt with teacher licensure.

SB 3 gives high-performing school districts two pieces of flexibility around teacher licensure. First, it allows qualifying districts to choose not to require its teachers be licensed in the grade levels they teach (though the bill maintains that a teacher must hold a license in the subject area they teach). Second, it allows these high-performing districts to hire teachers who don't hold an educator license but are instead qualified based on experience. Senate President Faber has argued that these provisions expose students to high-quality teachers they might not encounter otherwise—a retired math professor who wants to teach high school students, for instance. Opponents object to allowing unlicensed teachers into classrooms because important skills like behavior management and writing lesson plans aren’t necessarily intuitive, and their absence could outweigh the benefit of content knowledge and experience. This debate raises some important questions: Does teacher licensure matter? And is there...

AEI just released a very good, short report on charter authorizing, “The Paperwork Pileup: Measuring the Burden of Charter School Applications.”

It argues that applications have become too onerous. Authors McShane, Hatfield, and English found authorizers are requiring more and more paperwork from prospective founders, moving chartering away from outcomes-focused accountability. As a former authorizer, I agree with much of the report. In my experience, government programs tend toward rule-based compliance and sclerosis. Systems eventually suffer an accretion of rules, and central administrators create policies to simplify their work at the expense of those they monitor. More specifically, I concur that some charter applications seem to equate length with rigor, ask for information with limited bearing on school quality, and pose major obstacles to first-time operators.

But some of the criticisms aimed at the report are also fair. NACSA believes its recommendations would threaten accountability. The organization defends, for example, application questions related to discipline, safety, and budgeting. They also pointedly note that some organizations calling for less regulation lack practical “experience working with charter schools and authorizers.” NACSA, on the...

Last week, Fordham hosted Robert Putnam for a discussion of his new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, which argues that a growing opportunity gap is leaving many American children behind. Watch the replay of the event, or read the transcript of the event below.

Michael Petrilli:              

Good afternoon, everybody. Good afternoon. My name is Mike Petrilli. I am the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. For those of you that don’t know us, we are an educational policy think tank. We are based here in Washington, D.C. but we also do on-the-ground work in the great state of Ohio which also features prominently in Dr. Putnam’s book. You can shout out for Ohio, that’s okay. Yes, and just as long as it’s not Ohio State, that’s another story. But Thomas B. Fordham was an industrialist way back in the day in Dayton, Ohio, so we have a mission to do on-the-ground school reform work in Ohio. We push for educational reform out of Columbus and we are...

In 2006, Ohio enacted one of the nation’s first “default closure” laws, which requires the lowest-performing charter schools to shut down whether their authorizers want them to or not. The law, still in effect today, has forced twenty-four charters to close. The criteria for automatic closure are well defined in law and are based on the state’s accountability system.

This new working paper, which complements our recent study on Ohio school closures, evaluates the effect of closures induced by the automatic closure law on student achievement. (By contrast, Fordham’s study examined both district and charter closures that occurred regardless of cause, be it financial, academic, or other.) To carry out this analysis, the researchers compared the outcomes of students attending charters that closed by default to those of pupils attending charters that just narrowly escaped the state’s chopping block. The sharp “cut point” for closure versus non-closure allowed the analysts to compare very similar students who attended similarly performing schools—thus approximating a “gold-standard” random experiment.

The key finding: Students displaced by an automatic closure made significant gains in math and reading after their schools closed, a result consistent with our broader study. Moreover, the analysts found that the academic...

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